Walla Walla Public Library opens in November 1897.

  • By Michael J. Paulus Jr.
  • Posted 8/15/2008
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8730
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In November 1897, the Walla Walla Public Library opens to the public. After a number of unsuccessful attempts to establish a circulating library for the public in Walla Walla, the city finally has books, funds, a facility, and a librarian to start a free public library. The library is greatly indebted to the advocacy of the Walla Walla Woman's Reading Club, a group that is only a few years old but has been instrumental in making possible a free public library in Walla Walla. The club will continue to advocate for the library, helping it obtain its first building in 1905. With civic support, a building from Andrew Carnegie, and professional staff and services, the library will quickly grow and become an important community asset. In 1970, the library will move into a new facility, which will enable it to expand its collections and services.

Fee Libraries

Efforts to establish circulating libraries for the public in Walla Walla date back to 1860s, when a group of businessmen formed a literary society, which met regularly for lectures, discussions, and debates. Through subscriptions this society formed a collection of some 150 books and on January 20, 1865, it was incorporated as the Walla Walla Library Association. The cost of joining the association was $5 and quarterly dues were $1, but nonmembers could use the library for $1 per month. The library's books and periodicals were kept in various locations downtown, where they could be accessed during weekdays.

The Walla Walla Library Association soon dissolved, but a similar association was organized in the early 1870s by a group of Fort Walla Walla officers who formed the Walla Walla Library and Lyceum Association. In 1877, this association merged with the Walla Walla Association for the Advancement of Science and built a small, single-story building downtown for its reading room and library. Margaret Welch was employed as the librarian. But this association dissolved, too, and its building closed in 1887. The library was moved to a room in another downtown building, but by 1890 the library's books were simply being stored. Local businesses paid a small fee to maintain the reading room for young men.

Walla Walla's Free Library

Soon after Washington became a state, Walla Wallans prepared a bill that would provide for the municipal support of public libraries. The first bill did not pass the legislature but a second, sponsored by the newly established Walla Walla Woman's Reading Club, became law in March 1895. The Woman's Club quickly raised the required money and petitioned the city council to establish a public library in April 1897. The City Council arranged to rent the upper floor of a downtown building and hired Margaret (Welch) Center to be the city's librarian. With $903.24 in cash and $300 in books, the Walla Walla Public Library opened its doors to the public in November.

The library, which soon had to move to another building downtown, was in need of its own building and planning soon began for one. The Woman's Reading Club found a suitable site, philanthropist Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) provided a grant of $25,000 for the construction of a building, and local banker and future library trustee Thompson Coit Elliott (1862-1943) donated the land.

The city cleared the land and committed to annual appropriations of one-tenth of Carnegie's grant. With about 5,000 books, the library moved into its new building in 1905. The next year a professional librarian was hired to lead the library and professionalize its operations, including cataloging, collection development, and outreach activities. The library quickly grew and by 1950 it had outgrown its facilities. In 1970, a new library building was dedicated and the library was able to expand its collections, to include new media such as records and films, as well as its services.

Sources: HistoryLink.org, the Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Walla Walla Public Library," (by Michael J. Paulus Jr.) and "Walla Walla Public Library building is dedicated on December 13, 1905," (by Paula Becker), http://www.HistoryLink.org (accessed August 15, 2008 and July 4, 2008); Robert A. Bennett, Walla Walla: Portrait of a Western Town, 1804-1899 (Walla Walla: Pioneer Press, Inc., 1980); Bennett, Walla Walla: A Town Built to Be a City, 1900-1919 (Walla Walla: Pioneer Press, Inc., 1982); Frank T. Gilbert, Historic Sketches: Walla Walla, Whitman, Columbia, and Garfield Counties, Washington Territory (Portland, Ore.: A. G. Walling, 1882); W. D. Lyman, An Illustrated History of Walla Walla County, State of Washington (W. H. Lever, Publisher, 1901); W. D. Lyman, Lyman's History of Old Walla Walla County: Embracing Walla Walla, Columbia, Garfield, and Asotin Counties Vols. 1 and 2 (Chicago: S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1918); Maryde Fahey Orr, "Development of the Walla Walla Public Library" (M.L. Thesis, University of Washington, 1953).

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